[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC TwoThis World


Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 16:14 GMT
Retired husband syndrome
Reporter Paul Kenyon
By Paul Kenyon
Reporter, Japan: Retired Husband Syndrome

In Japan it is estimated that 60% of older women have a common problem - their husbands. Having spent years "married to their jobs", retired men are having an extraordinary effect on the health of their partners.

Takako Terakawa
Takako Terakawa finds that buying teddy bears relieves her stress

Takako Terakawa shares her cramped, two-room flat in Osaka with a cat the size of a small child, 400 teddy bears and her husband.

The bears are neatly stored, and filed according to colour and size, in a cabinet in her bedroom.

She brings them out to inspect and groom them each day.

As she does so, her whole body relaxes.

This seems to be what she lives for.

The bears are a replacement for her husband.

Drifting apart

Mrs Terakawa suffers from Retired Husband Syndrome (RHS), an illness born of a particular set of social conditions.

Women brought up during the 50s and 60s - the baby-boomer generation - are sometimes seen as a commodity by their husbands, someone to do the housework and look after the children.

Dr Nobuo Kurokawa
If the husband doesn't try to understand, the illness becomes incurable
Dr Kurokawa

Their husbands may be "salarymen" or white collar workers, who leave home in the early hours, and return merely to sleep.

These couples can gradually drift apart, carving out separate lives for themselves.

Then, when the husband approaches 60 - the national retirement age in Japan - the wife gradually realises she is going to be thrust into the permanent company of a man who has grown to be a stranger.

It is at this point that wives in Japan have started becoming ill, showing signs of both depression and physical illness.

"When I thought about my husband being at home, I developed rashes on my body and had stomach ache," admits Mrs Terakawa. "On occasions I would throw up after I had eaten.

"Sometimes just being in the same room as him made me physically sick."

The syndrome was discovered by Dr Nobuo Kurokawa who, over the past 10 years, has been treating a steady flow of Japanese women of a certain age with the same symptoms, including depression, skin rashes, ulcers, asthma and high blood pressure.

Dr Kurokawa, who has a surgery in Osaka, believes that 60% of older women are affected by RHS and says that if it is ignored, the symptoms will just get worse.

"If the husband doesn't try to understand, the illness becomes incurable," he says.

Laws of separation

In the West, of course, when relations have sunk to such a low, divorce would be a way out.

The husbands are completely unaware that they are part of the problem

But in Japan, particularly among this generation, it is far less culturally acceptable.

Not only that, but a divorced wife has no rights to her husband's pension and would usually be unable to survive financially should they decide to part ways.

A change in Japanese divorce law (giving wives a share of their husband's pension) is scheduled for early 2007, but for people like Mrs Terakawa and the others we met in Japan suffering from RHS, they will not be taking that route.

This is largely because the syndrome has a strange twist at its core.

Many women suffering from it actually want to keep their husbands. Stranger still, the husbands are completely unaware that they are part of the problem.

Hidden emotion

Seikichi (l) and Yukie (r) Aoyama
The Aoyamas are now planning a happy retirement, together

One of the other sufferers we met was Yukie Aoyama.

Her escape from her husband came in the form of an obsession over young pop star Kiyoshi Hikawa.

Her walls are plastered with his image and her diary is organised around his appearances.

She sees her husband, a salaryman working away, just once a month - and then just for a few hours.

We met her husband during one of his visits home.

I had imagined a monster, but he was a small, timid man who was genuinely completely taken aback when I suggested his wife might be suffering from RHS.

She had never had the nerve to tell him.

I asked him what he would do if his wife decided to leave him.

"It never occurred to me, but I think I would be in trouble," he said. "I am getting old. If my wife asked me to live alone I would fall apart... I am not strong enough.

"Our generation is not good at expressing feelings."

National conversation

What really surprised me is that I thought RHS would be something talked about in hushed tones at pensioners' clubs. But, it is actually the subject of discussion between young people on the streets of Tokyo who are determined to learn from the mistakes of previous generations.

Within 10 years, a quarter of Japanese will be over 65. Coupled with the fact that life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world - 81 years - it has become a serious talking point.

The syndrome has featured in TV debates and is discussed widely in the newspapers.

The question is, now that we know the symptoms, how long will it be before Western women of a certain age start suffering from RHS too?

This World: Retired Husband Syndrome was broadcast on Tuesday, 14 November, 2006 at 2150 GMT on BBC Two.

Here are a selection of your comments on Retired Husband Syndrome.

My father retired a few years ago and my mum was in her early 70s. Her family has longevity with no complications whatsoever. My mum has developed high blood pressure and short-term memory loss. I can't help feeling the memory loss is selective. My dad loves her to bits but he was always the boss in his business and this adds another dimension to being around the house all the time. He tells her how to do things she has been doing for herself and four children for 50 years! I will be watching the programme with interest.
Suzette Clarke, Vancouver, Canada

I have developed all of these symptoms during past five years with asthma being the worse. My husband retired and with the added pressure of ailing parents life became extremely stressful. My doctor put everything down to stress.
Name witheld, Merseyside

I know this is true. I lived in Japan for over five years. Some of my Japanese friends saw their wives leave unexpectedly one day, usually with the family funds. They called this a NARITA (after the Tokyo Airport) divorce. They are to be found in Hawaii, Australia, Canada and the US.
William Cowling, Gilbert, AZ

This is also observed with the Indian woman especially in those cases whose husbands have been performing long duty hours. After retirement, women do not like their husbands roaming around all the time. They show signs of irritation at times. Since Japanese and Indian culture is very similar, retired husbands need to handle women with care.
S C K Vaid, Udaipur, India

Similar problems have been known for years with wives of Navy men. They are gone for six months at a time. Wives left at home here on the West Coast are known as West PAC Widows. Things are great - until they retire. Then the person who was fun and out to sea changes and the couples find they are strangers. I have heard the same with wives of fishermen.
Walter, Seattle, USA

I think my aunt suffers/suffered from this. Her symptoms manifested themselves in terrible headaches, lassitude and influenza-like aches and pains in her limbs. The doctors could never find an answer. My aunt and uncle now do lots of things together, and you'd see them as the ideal couple you want to emulate when you are their age... but she still does all the cooking, cleaning etc that she used to do before he retired. I think the house is possibly her 'teddy bears'. I also think they would both be horrified if RHS was the diagnosis.
Nancy, Brighton, UK

I suspect that RHS is not confined to Japan. I know of a number of my relatives and friends who said they felt surprisingly stressed and annoyed with their partners when they came to stay - either permanently or temporarily from a long stint abroad or when the job circumstances changed so they were able to spend more time at home. They reported that they felt their husbands were interfering and getting in the way. I recently changed my job role and am away very little now. I have noticed my wife being more snappy and less tolerant of my suggestions.
Julian Charatan, London, UK

Divorce threat to retired couples
22 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific